Perhaps the making mind that contemplates two simultaneous truths is excused from its customary tasks, and need not abstract from what it views.
… my obligation was to see clearly and represent truthfully the configurations of that experience, and to try never to forget the equal necessity to see both ways at the same time, to see the extension of reality to its coincidence with the unseen and contingent …
All of this is from the essay, “The Silence”: Life Through the Lens of Structure by John Engels in the book Introspections: American Poets on One of Their Own Poems edited by Robert Pack and Jay Parini:
… At the time I saw a poem as no more than an artifact, an illusion of reality, a thing derived from the love of things that resembled other things, and were capable of being organized so as to extend themselves somehow to the community. So that in writing this poem I was demonstrating myself to the world. I was playing with words, making analogies, when the great truth, the only truth, was that a child, my child, was dead. How could a poem pretend to the occasion?
… But sometimes friends can save you, as did Jack Beal and Sondra Freckelton, who pointed out to me what in paintings is called the “sacred center,” that point in the painting, in the direct center, where what is most important is made manifest by its placement. It is almost a matter of geometry, a way of containing the uncontainable, of confining its energy almost, but not quite, to the point of the intolerable.
Jack speaks of Caravaggios’s painting of the death of the Virgin, which was criticized by its patrons as presenting the Virgin as resembling a drowned whore . . . she lies on the bed, unassumed, her arm dangling over the edge, “reduced,” they felt, to the “merely” human.
Perhaps. Perhaps I approached my subject in the same spirit as the painter — to reimagine the form and energy of event, to directly access the preverbal sensibility. Perhaps “The Silence” is not history, but a bypassing of circumstance to the dark center of its origin, an assertion of individuality in community, an act of faith against all the evidence of our experience that can be understood by, and understand, others. Perhaps “The Silence” is life focused at its dark center through the lens of structure — not my child’s death, though certainly that; not my [other] son’s attempt to call him back, though that too; and not my assumption of guilt, though perhaps that above all.
The obligation was necessarily sacramental — some operative principle was inherent in the death of my infant son, and my aim, though I did not realize it, was to clarify that presence, not define or analyze it. Perhaps the making mind that contemplates two simultaneous truths is excused from its customary tasks, and need not abstract from what it views.
In fact in writing “The Silence,” my obligation was to see clearly and represent truthfully the configurations of that experience, and to try never to forget the equal necessity to see both ways at the same time, to see the extension of reality to its coincidence with the unseen and contingent, at which point, together with the emergent life of the reader a new reality would burst into existence. “I want to write a poem / , “says Williams,”that you would understand. / For what good is it to me / if you can’t understand it?”
… This life-making struggle between the personal and the general plenitudes manifests itself throughout the whole fabric of “The Silence,” the whole fabric of any poem — line against sentence, strophe against syntactical continuity, rhyme against expectation, the obliquities of figurative language against “plain seeing” and “straight thought.” And, most of all, the simultaneous exclusiveness of the poem and its passionate and incontrovertible longings to inform, monumentalize, fix for all time, affirm, become its pure potency.
Though I am interested in Engels ideas apart from the specific poem he is discussing, you may well be curious about that poem. Here, briefly, is the story behing the poem, and then the poem itself:
“The Silence” was written some fifteen years after the death of our infant son, whom the night before he died I had heard crying in his bed, and who in the morning, while I was on the phone, was discovered by his mother, who came to me and said, “The baby is dead.” I dropped the phone, and she said, “The baby is dead.” My seven-year-old daughter, whose room was directly above the telephone, and open to the downstairs through a heat register, heard this, and the other children, six and four years old, hearing the strangeness of our voices, came running in, wanting to know what was wrong.
And being American, I resorted to euphemism. “Philip’s gone,” I blurted out, whereupon the four-year-old, my son John, ran to the front porch and shouted into the woods (where to his mind little children became lost), “Philip, come back! “
The one child having in manner of speaking fled,
his brother ran out to the porch to call him back,
Philip! he cried out, Philip! I caught him up,
thinking if ever the dead were to be recalled
it would be in a similar voice flung confident
into that raving light. Since then
each fall when the woods have darkened with color
the horror has been absurdly to wonder
if I in my sternest father’s voice
had commanded into the bloodied gullet of the day
Come back! Come back! he might have heard.
But up on the hill
the pines had strained to a power of wind.
Come back! I might have cried, but I did not,
and silence stormed. Meanwhile
he is speechless, dark, of no intent.
As there should be, there is a great deal of emotion in the essay. I have not quoted those parts so as to focus on the ideas.